For the past 75 years, the Alley Theatre has gifted Houston with award-winning productions. After 18 months off stage, the company has joined forces with the Ensemble Theatre to present a live performance of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
In Sweat, Nottage slowly reveals a complex tangle of family relationships and friendships. The play follows a small group of friends who work in a factory town facing a shutdown. Those bonds rupture when the town’s factory closes unexpectedly, causing a dispute between the Black and white employees. Tensions escalate when a Hispanic man crosses the picket line, making him a target for displaced union workers.
Most of the action is set in a neighborhood bar, where easy-going Stan (played by Chris Hutchison) tends. Michelle Elaine turns in an absolutely flawless performance as Cynthia, a Black woman who gets promoted to factory manager over her colleague and friend Tracey (Elizabeth Bunch). Resentful at being passed over for the promotion, Tracey attacks Cynthia and their friendship is fractured. Jessie (Melissa Pritchett), the third woman in the trio of friends, spends most of her time inebriated.
Each actor gives a solid and nuanced performance, but Elaine and Dylan Godwin (who plays a factory worker named Jason) are especially outstanding. Elaine’s character is strong and sensible. In her effort to keep her job, Cynthia must lock both her friends and her own son out of the factory.
Godwin, on the other hand, is no stranger to Houston and Alley productions. He won kudos as the harried reservation clerk in the one-man show Fully Committed, and then again as the put-upon friend in Good People. In Sweat, Jason goes from an immature and ultimately angry young man to a bitter, broken ex-con.
Sweat is a challenging show to see. While Houston audiences may have some trouble relating to the dynamics of a factory town and union families, the desperation of losing a job and feeling helpless is all too familiar. Nottage is unrelenting in her writing, delivering punch after punch and pushing characters into untenable positions with no escape in sight.
Associate director Eileen Morris’s contribution can’t be overestimated. It’s clear that this production wouldn’t be as successful without her. From the sound to costume design, the production is wonderfully captivating. Director Rob Melrose has assembled a stellar cast and drawn extraordinary performances from them for Sweat. After successfully bringing the Alley Theatre through the COVID-19 shut-down, he’s positioned the company for a brilliant season.
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